In the oral arguments of Fisher vs. University of Texas, Justice Antonin Scalia raised some questions about Affirmative Action:
There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well. One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas.”
(Quote courtesy National Review)
These comments are necessarily taken out of context, and I have not read the entire arguments before the Court. I welcome anyone with more understanding of the case, particularly attorneys, to comment below. Instead, the following points target what I have not yet seen anywhere in the lay press, but were possibly made by the University of Texas.
To my mind, Justice Scalia chooses his words in an unfortunate way here, to say the least. Precise use of language is a critical part of legal practice, and Scalia is reportedly one of the great legal minds of his generation. Specifically, he does not mention Spanish or other minority students in this passage; more importantly, he does not talk about unprepared African American students, unqualified African American students, nor even weak African American students. Just ‘African Americans’, seeming to lump all African American students, and only African American students, under the category of undeserving minority students. That’s a problem. It implies that all African Americans are unqualified; if that is his intention, then it’s offensive.
But for the sake of argument, let us assume that Affirmative Action is as Scalia assumes: not an effort to overcome racial barriers, but an attempt to include weaker minorities in the classroom. Consider the point made by the National Journal which we learned here in Lafayette in our own desegregation case. The federal judge overseeing our case asked for research data on desegregation from the University faculty. It turns out that a school can handle up to 30-35% at-risk students, and accommodating them does not hurt education for the majority, but the minority are benefited from being with stronger students. (Past that point, unfortunately, education tends to fall apart.) So it seems that using education to elevate struggling students is a great way to address social obstacles.
I have another comment to add to that, something that no one I’ve read is talking about. No one is talking about what Affirmative Action, and the deliberate inclusion of minorities, does for the majority. Right now I am reading Love & War by Mary Matalin and James Carville. In it, Carville makes an interesting point about increasingly polarized government. Thirty years ago, we only had a few news sources, and we were necessarily exposed to different viewpoints. With cable and the Internet today, it is too easy for each of us to crawl into our little ideological holes (my words, not his), and never stick our heads out to listen to other ideas. We listen to different ideas, viewpoints, and life experiences less and less.
Let me bring in distance learning here. There is much debate about why a student should pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to college, when the lectures and the content can now be had on the Internet for free. One response is that a university education is not (or at least should not be) about simple information; it is about learning to think.
There is often little debate inside the lecture hall, because there is simply too much information to cover. I noted that when I was in grad school, we would often start debates with the professor. He would go back and forth with us a few moments, and then complain that we had to keep going in order to cover the syllabus.
This is my answer to Affirmative Action, and to distance learning: the best learning does not take place in a lecture hall. It takes place in the interstices, in discussions in dorms, college organizations, coffee shops, even nightclubs. It is only when we are exposed to different ideas — and most importantly, different experiences — that we reconsider our ideas, and others’ ideas; it is then that we begin to morph from mere memorizers into critical thinkers. It is of no use to have a discussion where everyone agrees. As I noted before, When everyone thinks the same way, who’s thinking?
Noted author Luis Urrea taught here at UL in the ’90’s, and some of his writing focused on the poorest of the poor in Tijuana. I remember him relating the story of a clergyman who brought in American teenagers to interact with these impoverished Mexicans. At one point, Urrea asked him how he could possibly hope to make a difference in the Mexicans’ lives. The clergyman responded that he couldn’t.
He was trying to change the Americans.
Which is the aspect that I’m not seeing addressed in the media. In higher education, Affirmative Action is not just educational opportunity for minorities. It is critical intellectual engagement for the majority.
We cannot hope to design solutions to society’s problems if we never hear from enormous minority segments of our country, particularly those segments who are isolated by exactly those problems. Media sound bites are insufficient for real understanding, our best citizens-in-training need to confront the enormity and the complexity of our problems.
Ironically, our universities need to do exactly what our courts, most of all the Supreme Court, are designed to guarantee: provide a fair comparison of viewpoints and ideas. Educational segregation, whether of races, religions, ideologies or life experiences, compromises that process.
What makes the university so much more than distance learning, is the larger view: the deeper problems, the untold stories.
The broad, rich diversity of life.
Next in this thread: Football v Affirmative Action
Antonin Scalia courtesy Wikimedia.org.